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Pundit’s Mailbag — Ripening Lessons
From The Trenches

Our initial piece on the quality of fruit and, more specifically, the consumer-eating experience has led to extensive industry discussion.

We kicked it off with Lousy Fruit Undermines Consumption, which detailed some disappointing eating experiences that the Jr. Pundit, Primo, had experienced. This was followed by Pundit’s Mailbag — More On Lousy Fruit: Where’s The Management? — in which a correspondent from the UK explained his association with a project to improve local presentation of product.

We also ran Pundit’s Mailbag — Expectations Too High On Ripe-And-Ready Fruit? — which raised the question of whether industry efforts shouldn’t be dedicated to bringing consumer expectations better in line with what the industry can deliver. Finally, we ran Ripening Workshop Set for May 20, which featured a letter from Jim Gorney, now Executive Director Postharvest Technology Research and Information Center at UC Davis and formerly Senior Vice President Food Safety and Technology at United Fresh, which highlighted a workshop that could help the industry deliver better tasting fruit to consumers.

That workshop is now sold out — though there is a waitlist you can get on. One of the speakers in that workshop, though, is presenting a workshop on “The Importance of A Retail Ripening Program.” His name is Dennis Kihlstadius and he sent us a letter that is right on topic:

Thank you for being the ‘bolt of lightning’ and ‘lightning rod’ for our ‘entrenched’ produce industry.

I have just returned from Hong Kong, and I can tell you in lands other than ours, if it does not taste good it will not sell.

You have hit on something I have been preaching in the trenches for years.

When I started to work as a consultant to the California Avocado Commission as part of ‘The Nolan Network’ — Theresa Nolan’s brain trust group of merchandisers — I would run into the constant mantra from produce buyers and store workers, ‘how long is the shelf life?’

I would answer, ‘don’t you want to sell it? How can you sell this rock-hard avocado? Your repeat sale will be in 10-14 days.’

Then the ‘deer-in-the-headlight’ look would follow from them. Our industry has come a long way promoting flavor and ripeness; however, we are still in the ‘crawl stage’ on what we can do.

Dr. Kader at U.C.Davis has often been heard saying that just because you can store a produce item 10 months doesn’t mean you will have flavor for 10 months, maybe 7 months of that storage time will have flavor.

We sell and buy with our eyes (the first time anyway), and we repeat the purchase with a good experience from the first purchase.

Produce consumers have a moving target — if the Clementines are not good, maybe the tangerines will be good? The consumers can always purchase another item for their eating pleasure.

Commodity groups have come and gone during the last 15 years or so, and for the most part when they shut down, they have lost the ability to have that relationship of communicating the story of a given industry.

Most of all, they have lost the feedback to their industry on how things are going out in the marketplace for their commodity.

As an industry, we still put the sale before the customer. That would include grower/shipper to wholesaler/jobber/retailer/food service provider; wholesale/jobber to retail/food service or retailer/food service to customer/dining consumer.

Whatever layer you take, it is all about the sale, the price, the quantity or the ‘eye appeal’ quality, but not the ‘eating quality’.

We have tools that tell us measurements of quality — i.e., refractometers, penetrometers, infra-red, and other computerized gizmos — but in the end, we still need to make sure that the consumer will have a good eating experience…

…Which it seems the Jr. Pundit Primo, aka William, and the rest of your family did not have. I do not have the space here to get into the basics of fruit classifications (climacteric, if picked mature continue to ripen when conditions are favorable, and non-climacteric, once picked, it does not really change and should be consumed soon.)

I am amazed at how many people who consider themselves experts and leaders of our industry who don’t even understand the basics of their produce items or others.

Keep up the battle. Thank you for telling it like it is!

— Dennis Kihlstadius
Produce Technical Services
Bemidji, Minnesota

We thank Dennis for his kind words, and we would like to be hopeful, but this is hardly a new issue.

As a greenhorn, Kevin Moffit, now President and CEO of Pear Bureau Northwest, was an entry-level banana ripener for Dole, so he seized on this issue early and, in fact, retained Dennis Kihlstadius, who was already working with both the tomato and the avocado industry to help the pear industry.

When was this innovation? Well Kevin wrote an article all about it, entitled Conditioned Fruit: Is it What Consumers Are Looking For? The article was published back in 2002!

In his letter, Dennis mentions Professor Adel Kader as a pioneer in this field. Indeed he is! Unfortunately, he has been pioneering for so long that you can attend his retirement dinner on June 21, 2008!

Although it surprises us that retailers would want to put on their shelves items that don’t taste good, some retailers do have an opinion that it is their job to provide consumers a choice, and if consumers don’t like it, they won’t buy it. Unfortunately, this logic breaks down with a commodity, as there is no way for a consumer to know if they will like the item without buying it first. So the effect of selling poor-tasting fruit affects future purchases, not the current purchase.

Some items can benefit from the imposition of standards at shipping point. The Pundit used to export quite a bit of Florida grapefruit to Europe, especially to France, and the state imposed a brix test at the start of the season to prevent immature fruit from shipping.

For fruit that can be shipped hard but conditioned at some point in the process, maybe we have to steal a page from the new-food safety programs. Instead of relying on “inspection” to verify if something is right or wrong, you verify the procedure that the product is undergoing. In other words, the key factor in evaluating safety is if the product was produced in accordance with the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement or as per GlobalGAP or British Retail Consortium requirements.

What if a production area, instead of looking for an approved Brix at shipping point, required that all shipments of a certain nature be enrolled in a verified conditioning or ripening program?

After all, the concern is not eating quality at shipping point. It is eating quality at point of purchase or in the home.

We ran a little piece on Andy Rooney’s quirky 60 Minutes take on fresh produce. Andy is an acquired taste, and you either appreciate his randomness or find him a waste of time. We did think, though, especially as the country may be going into a period in which people are watching budgets more carefully, that he offered a useful commentary:

From the time you’re very young, someone is always telling us to eat more fruit. Well, I think we would eat more fruit if we knew for sure that it was going to be any good when we bought it. So expensive.

There may be a temptation to focus on selling the cheapest product, which might mean avoiding the expense of conditioning or pre-ripening the fruit. Yet surely long-term, consumption — and thus sales — will increase when consumers find produce a consistently good value for their money. They can’t come to that conclusion if they don’t like the taste.

Many thanks to Dennis Kihlstadius for helping us advance the industry discussion on this important issue.

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